Themes in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Themes in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Themes in Mrs Dalloway


Mrs Dalloway is a rich and complex work of art. It has been interpreted by critics in different ways. The views of critics in interpreting its basic theme differ widely. David Daiches states that the theme of this novel as well as of others of Virginia Woolf is “Time, Death and Personality”. He goes further to say that the novel deals with the nature of self and its relation to other people, the importance of social contact and at the same time the necessity of keeping the self inviolable. The novel in other words treats of the tension between the extremes of isolation and domination, with the need of love as well as keeping the spirit inviolate.

The basic theme of the novel, in the opinion of Karl and Magalaner is the “reality of life and death, the significance of the flow of consciousness on which human beings are borne from birth to death.”

R. L. Chambers holds similar views with these two critics when he says and the theme of the novel is the problem of individuality and the problem of its relation to time and death.

According to Bernard Blackstone, “The theme of Virginia Woolf’s novels is often precisely this: the patient effort of the woman towards the reintegration of man.”

Theme of Time

Life, to Virginia Woolf, as it was to Bergson, is a spiritual force, a vital impetus, equal to pure as distinct from the chronological time and equal to human consciousness when that consciousness attains to awareness not measurable by any amount of chronological time or space. Reality is in a state of constant movement, flux, transition, duration, and experience has no impediment, the whole human experience in a flux is one. It is the aim of Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway to show that the experiences of individuals are combined to form a single, indeterminate whole and when one has come to realize this then he attains understanding and insight. In the words of Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, “life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end”. When her characters see life as a luminous halo they reach the moments of illumination, not before or after.

Theme of Single Personality

The basic theme of the novel is the life of a single personality, Mrs. Dalloway. Affecting and affected by others with whom she comes into contact. The action of the novel relates to a single day in the month of June, on which she is proposing to give a party in the evening. The frame-work of time in which the novel is encompassed is narrow, but within it “by means of the contacts she makes and the memories they evoke in her and in others, her life-story from her girlhood to her present age of fifty is gradually unfolded”.

She is shown at the critical moments in her life through her consciousness and of others with whom she is related, and thus a rounded and well-built up personality in her is vividly presented. Her love-experiences are particularly exposed. She was in love with Peter Walsh. She rejected Peter Walsh, whom she loved passionately and whom she still loves intensely, because she found him too possessive, domineering and assertive, who would not have allowed her any privacy of soul, any spiritual independence. Richard, her present husband, is unlike him, for he respects her soul and allows her privacy in her attic-room.

Tension between the Privacy of Self and the Claims of Society

Septimus, a complement of Mrs. Dalloway, illustrates, like Mrs. Dalloway, the conflict that exists between the privacy of self, which tries to keep the self inviolate and the claims of society in the novel. He too, like her, wants to keep his spirit inviolate and is terrified when worldlings like Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw, proceed towards him to dominate and to possess him, and in order to escape from it he jumps through the window of the hospital, where he is taken by force, and dies. The irrational, tormented and alienated aspects of Mrs. Dalloway’s spirit are represented in him. Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw are symbols of human nature, as it were, as such they want Septimus to project himself and to do as the people in the world and life normally act and behave.

Dissolution of Common Experience

Dissolution of experience into tenuous insights or short-lived glimpses into reality-inner reality of man, which occurs when in moments of intensity, something happens to reveal his sub-conscious thoughts, is the theme of Mrs. Dalloway. The experience of man is a sort of a stream in which water continually flows and it is difficult to say which drop of water belongs to what place, as all the drops are so mixed up that they belong to the whole stream. Human experience likewise is the property of all mankind. Two persons completely differently in life and total strangers to one another, can establish contact with each other in life also identify themselves completely with one another.

Mrs. Dalloway goes into a kind of reverie when Sir William Bradshaw tells her that a young man has committed suicide and in a moment of deep insight into her own life thus brought about, she feels that the young man’s experience was like her own, although in life they were not only different from each other, but also had never met. On bearing of his death she suddenly suffers from a sense of insufficiency, of some inexplicable insecurity, loneliness and fear, and a feeling how she would like to lock herself in the embrace of death.

At Clarissa’s party, Peter Walsh has the same experience of isolation for a while, as Ellie Henderson has, though she is indifferent to her being neglected. Experience when dissolved into insights has to be organized and the manner in which it is done has a close resemblance to a lyrical poem.

Satire on Contemporary Civilization

In Mrs. Dalloway the novelist rises above the representation of one person or of two, and shows the state of western civilization after the World War through them. The western civilization as it appears from outside, abounds in external glitter and brilliance, pomp and show, empty snobbery, hypocrisy, greed, worldliness, material achievements etc., and this all is depicted through the life of the Dalloways and their social circle with all its accompanying neurosis, boredom, ennui, inner hollowness, and spiritual death. The story of Septimus is introduced in the novel particularly to bring out his fact. Septimis-Rezia story is a satiric exposure of the hollowness, sterility and deadness of the modern western civilization. Hugh Whitbreads, Dr. Holmes, and Bradshaw are all snobbish careerists. Their souls are dead; they are exclusively engaged in material pursuits and are wholly incapable of sympathetic understanding.

Theme of Love, Death and the Evanescent Beauty

On the poetic plane the theme of Mrs. Dalloway is love, death and evanescent beauty. Virginia Woolf employed fundamental conflicts that lie beneath the life—such as the conflicts between life and death, hope and despair, love and hate, social contacts and individual freedom, contemplation and action, human misery and the exquisite joy of life.

The love theme, which occupies a central place in the novel, is different in its treatment from the other novelists. In the conventional novel love constitutes the “climax” of the story, there is a sequence of events leading up to it and the story ends in either failure of success in love. But the real love story in Virginia Woolf’s novels starts after the marriage. True love lasts a whole life time and colours the very texture of life, while passion is evanescent, fleeting and lasts only till youth. The experience of love, as it is depicted in Mrs. Dalloway, is not simple and easily understandable, it is a complex and mysterious experience, accompanied with all its joys and sorrows, agonies and agitations. She has married Richard whom she loves and is also faithful to him. But deep down in the innermost recesses of her soul she has concealed an earlier love for Peter Walsh, which breaks all restraints when Peter Walsh weeps and she kisses him. Peter’s love has transformed her soul but it has left a permanent scar on her soul, which it is impossible to be washed off.

Love is treated in all its immense variety in the novel. We have Clarissa’s love for Peter Walsh, her love for Richard, her husband, and her love for Elizabeth, her daughter. We have also Peter Walsh’s love for Clarissa and his love for Daisy, who is far away in India. We have Rezia’s love for Septimus, the neurotic, for which she suffers pathetically and silently till he dies and leaves her alone and helpless. We have also Septimus’ love for Miss Isabella Pole, whose modesty he tried to outrage.

There are glimpses in the novel of the love of a woman for another woman like the love of men for women. Clarissa feels for Sally what a man feels for a woman whom he loves. This can be regarded as Lesbian love.

The news of the death of Septimus conveyed by Dr. Bradshaw to Mrs. Dalloway causes the springs of universal love well up in her soul, making her long for death, death which is mingling, which is coming together and which is communion. There is an “embrace in death”, feels Clarissa. Death is “universal love”.

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